Over the past few months, I’ve been reading Will Storr’s excellent The Science of Storytelling (William Collins, 2019). I know, I know, I can already hear the question: ‘Really, another book on writing?’
But I think this is an interesting and practical addition to the list. Will Storr is a journalist, novelist, non-fiction author and a ghostwriter. A lot of his journalism has been on scientific subjects – neuroscience and psychology in particular – and his angle is, perhaps unsurprisingly, what does science tell us about how successful storytelling works? What can the application of the results of recent research do to advance or reinforce our understanding of the way we tell stories?
The book starts with a discussion of, appropriately enough, the inciting incident or moment of change. So far, so standard. But his approach deviates from the norm immediately after. He quotes Professor Sophie Scott, neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow at University College London,
‘Almost all perception is based on the detection of change… Our perceptual systems basically don’t work unless there are changes to detect.’
If, he argues, evolutionary theory tells us that our ultimate purpose is to survive and reproduce, then our ability to perceive both threat and opportunity is our most important asset.
‘Ultimately, then, we could say that the mission of the brain is this: control. Brains have to perceive the physical environment and the people that surround it in order to control them. It’s by learning how to control the world that they get what they want.’
And when unexpected change happens, our brains are at their most alert – trying to work out what kind of change it is and how we need to respond. Change, in other words, makes us curious. And, applying this back to writing, nudging a reader’s curiosity is a compelling way to open any story. Nothing particularly revolutionary about that. But understanding a bit of the science behind the inciting incident helps focus on what aspects of it might be the most important to the reader.
A little bit further on, Storr discusses one of the other elements of Writing 101, active versus passive voice. He starts by summarising an aspect of neuroscientist Professor Benjamin Bergen’s work on the way we ‘model’ words. Bergen is Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego,
‘According to Bergen, we start modelling words as we start reading them. We don’t wait until we get to the end of the sentence. This means the order in which writers place their words matters… Because writers are, in effect, generating neural moves in the minds of their readers, they should privilege word order that’s filmic, imagining how their reader’s neural camera will alight upon each component of the sentence.’
Hence an active construction ‘Robert stole the turnip’ is more effective than ‘the turnip was stolen by Robert’. In the active sentence, our reader’s camera is directed at the act, the movement, the change in the situation as created by Robert’s action and encourage us to watch how the scene plays out; in the passive we are faced with a static root vegetable.
‘Active grammar means readers model the scene on the page in the same way that they’d model it if it happened in front of them.’
These are just two small examples. The Science of Storytelling takes us through character, plot, openings and endings, dialogue – all the usual suspects – in much the same way, highlighting what science can tell us about these elements of storytelling and why they work. It’s very clear, immensely readable and has a lively range of references – from Where’s Spot? to Madame Bovary, with honourable mentions of La La Land and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The book ends with a brief section on what Storr calls ‘The Sacred Flaw Approach’ – a scoot through some of the principles and exercises he uses in his writing classes.
Most sections of the book made me reassess at least one aspect of my work – whether it was the way I asked questions of authors during a ghosting session, the way I tackled dialogue when editing or the discussion of a character in a manuscript assessment. It’s a practical and stimulating guide which I’ve positioned on my desk rather than heaped on the already sagging ‘How to Write’ shelf in my office.